There are some things that Lionel Messi can do that are unique to him in the history of the game but that still, on a physical level, make sense.
Like dribbling at speed with the ball never more than inches away from his feet. Across a bobbly pitch that hosted a world heavyweight championship bout 11 days before. Through a swarm of defenders who were not just trying to stop him, but for whom stopping people like Messi was their speciality, their calling and their life’s work.
Twice within three second half minutes Messi did exactly this, before clipping identical finishes onto the same far post. Both moves were remarkable, but they were also believable. All it takes to do that is better balance, better control of one’s limbs, and more precise movements at speed than almost any other sportsman ever. That is one category of Messi’s actions on a football pitch: the unprecedented, but physically comprehensible.
What really stands out with Messi, even better than those scampering runs and perfect finishes, are the moments when he does something that defies physical understanding. Because it feels, in one particular moment, as if Messi has a view of the pitch unlike anyone else on it, or even anyone else in the stadium.
Gary Lineker remarked this week that Messi’s vision is so good that he plays as if he has a top-down view of the pitch, even as he plays on it. This was what was always said of Johan Cruyff, that he could see the whole pitch at any moment, like his own personal chessboard, and it is obviously true for Messi as well.
In the first half here in Wembley, Messi provided perfect examples of it. The first goal came from a Messi pass, curling agonisingly in front of a scrambling Kieran Trippier, into the path of Jordi Alba overlapping down the left. How did Messi, turning into space just over the half-way line, see Alba’s run, the space behind Trippier, and map out the route the ball would have to take to get there?
With a top-down view of the pitch, like the one TV commentators have, Messi’s viewpoint might just have made sense. 30 feet up in the press box it certainly did not. How Messi, eyes five feet above the ground, could have that view of the whole pitch defies belief. And just to rub it in Messi did it again soon later. Picking up the ball in space, he spotted a route to Luis Suarez’s chest, curling around the back of Davinson Sanchez. As ever with Messi, the technical execution is remarkable, but seeing the pass itself even more so. One clipped pass round the corner to Suarez, at the end of the first half, with no time to assess the movement, would have been just as celebrated had Suarez finished.
Compared to those moments, the two simple finishes in the second half, or the two dribbles that led to two hit posts, almost felt normal.
But football is a professional sport and while we could obsess all day about the technical level of Messi’s performances, they attain another level of meaning in the competitive context. Wembley was where Messi had one of his greatest nights, the 2011 Champions League final, an outlier on the axis of brilliance and the axis of importance. And while this display was as good as any Messi has put in this year, it was still only a group stage game.
Looking back at the World Cup this summer, Messi’s brilliant three-touch goal in St Petersburg will always be remembered, but that was just a group game against Nigeria. Argentina were nearly eliminated that day, just about survived, but went out in the last-16 anyway.
When was the last time Messi produced the highest level of football, in a match of equivalent importance? The last minute winner in last season’s Bernabeu clasico? Knocking a tired Chelsea out of the Champions League earlier this year? Arsenal two years before that? Or do you have to go all the way back to 2015, his Maradona goal in the Copa del Rey final against Athletic Bilbao, or running the Champions League final win over Juventus?
This would be a list to make any other player an all-time great, but when it comes to Messi, whose boundaries are unlike anyone else’s, it feels as if the last few years have been a slight disappointment. Especially in the Champions League.
That is why he is so obsessed about turning that around this year and winning this competition for a fifth time. It is an open field and Messi, now 31 years old, is determined to drag this rather unbalanced Barcelona team to victory in the final in Madrid next May. That medal would be one more tribute from the material, measurable world to a genius that still defies comprehension.